Why are catalogs still relevant? Short answer: they still work

In the age of e-commerce, billions of catalogs are sent to consumers every year because, according to one industry official, “you can’t force me to open your email.”

The Pointer family catalog topped 20 for the holiday season, and that’s light compared to previous years. About 7.5 billion business-to-consumer “books” are mailed to consumers each year, estimates Hamilton Davison, president and executive director of the American Catalog Mailers Association. (WTOP/Jack pointer)

Now listen to an old man talk about the pre-internet era.

Amazon was a rainforest, phones were glued to the wall, and the Sears Wish Book was a vacation bible for kids.

It was a catalog mailed to American homes around Halloween, and contained the most delicious pictures of toys that Santa Claus would hopefully leave under the tree. More importantly, it was a way to show parents how awesome and inexpensive the Millennium Falcon was, for example.

The word “Amazon” means something different now, of course, and the sights of this lush capitalist ecosystem can be explored with an untethered handheld phone.

The Wish Book is more or less the story too. Yet somehow, catalogs continue to thrive in the age of e-commerce. They still show up in our mailboxes and pile up on our dining room tables – before ending up in a trash can.

About 7.5 billion business-to-consumer “books” are mailed to consumers each year, estimates Hamilton Davison, president and executive director of the American Catalog Mailers Association.

Why? “Because they work,” Davison said. He cited their research, which shows that catalogs are effective not only with baby boomers but also with millennials.

“You can’t force me to open your email,” he said. “You can’t make me go to your website. You can’t even make me go to your store. But you can send, uninvited to my house, a large-format piece of mail that I have to pick up and give you 300 milliseconds of thought while I look at it and decide, “Am I going to read it or recycle it?” »

“And in that third of a second… you can invite me. And that’s actually what’s happening.”

While the internet is great for shoppers who know what they want, Davison said, it’s not great for browsing. Catalogs, on the other hand, offer what he called “a recreational shopping experience that many people find very enjoyable.”

Of the WTOP.com readers who have looked into the subject, some indeed seemed to be in the pro-catalog camp.

“I don’t order anything from them, but our daughter likes to browse them (as did I when I was a kid!),” Amanda Campbell wrote in an email.

“Catalogs allow us to imagine the possibilities and craft a Santa-appropriate list,” wrote Jennifer McIvor.

Now, if you raised your eyebrows for the last few paragraphs, you’re not alone. Most of those who spoke had a decidedly negative opinion.

“Received about 100 all in the trash. Such a waste,” Lisa Flynn wrote in an email.

“Don’t need them, too many and most just go for recycling. What a waste!” tweeted NBC Washington’s Doug Kammerer.

How much waste, though? Not as much as you might think. A DC-area waste and recycling company, Republic Services, sees “a lot more recycling-specific waste” from Thanksgiving to New Years, said Pete Keller, vice president of recycling and sustainability.

Among its 125,000 local customers, Republic collects up to 15% more recyclable materials during the holiday season, he said, “and a big part of that would be catalogs.”

This “mixed paper” does not necessarily go to a landfill. It generally has a good fiber content, he said, and can be reincarnated into a stationery.

“We put it on the market and usually we don’t really get paid, but it gets recycled,” Keller said. “…Whether they’re making linerboard for new cardboard boxes or tissue paper or other forms of packaging, that material is recycled.”

So it’s possible that the catalog you launched might appear months later containing an Amazon order, which brings us to what keeps waste and recycling professionals like Keller much busier during the holidays. More e-commerce means handling more cardboard from small boxes and less cardboard from big box stores and distribution centers.

“We used to have a lot of really big boxes, and now we have a lot of really small boxes, and that forces us to kind of change our equipment and the way we handle material,” he said. he declares.

And while all that holiday trash gets recycled, understand that catalog senders aren’t just flooding mailboxes haphazardly. There’s an analytical and quantitative element to their work, Davison said, because they work with tight margins.

Up to this point: “Every square inch is planned and carefully considered and, in fact, quantified and scored after the fact, so that the next release can be even more effective,” he said. Catalog shippers also use cooperative databases, which is why you get catalogs from a new, unknown retailer that somehow resembles the one you know and love.

“Our goal is to try to be there when you want us and not be there – it’s wasteful – when you don’t want us,” he said, “and of course, it’s a big challenge.I think that over the next two decades, we will continue to improve our level of sophistication and targeting, both with products and with recipients.

Many are probably hoping this isn’t wishful thinking.